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Tories say farewell to Blackpool

4 October 07 15:04 GMT
By Tim Reid
Westminster reporter, BBC Scotland

As the curtain fell on this week's Conservative conference, so too the end of an era.

For this was not just the end of the traditional conference season at three of England's seaside resorts, first Brighton, then Bournemouth and finally Blackpool this year.

It also marks - some would say thankfully - the last planned political conference in the latter, once the favourite of Glasgow holidaymakers.

The Lancashire seaside resort has no more bookings from the parties, who will be testing out bigger cities like Manchester and Birmingham from now on.

The ghosts inside the Victorian Winter Gardens in Blackpool have many tales to tell.....of backstabbings, of coups, of leadership bids, of political demises.

The Tories will be hoping 2007 will have added another to that list?

Repeat performance

They hope their display of unity this week will have been enough to persuade Gordon Brown not to go to the country this autumn - though in public the Tory leadership, and the most optimistic members who were in Blackpool to hear their leader's speech, will tell you that they hope they've done enough to let the Tories back into Downing Street.

David Cameron's address to conference - without autocue and with only a few notes by his side - was something of a repeat performance.

Here in the same hall in 2005 he employed the same method, and in doing so came from behind in the leadership race to take the Tory crown.

By repeating the exercise, he hopes to come from behind in any general election, should one be called, to take Gordon Brown's crown. But however you look at it, that would be something of a miracle.

The Tories need to be 10 points in front in the polls to be anywhere near moving back into Number 10....and in some polls recently they've been 10 points behind.

But this speech has restored the party's faith in Mr Cameron who in the past few months has been stung by criticism over his leadership.

He did what the Prime Minister did last week in Bournemouth, explaining more about Cameron the man, even tackling head-on his privileged Etonian education.

The intention, strolling the stage and speaking for more than an hour without notes, was to counter the criticism that he is lacking in authenticity.

He may have set a precedent though: for next time he delivers a speech to conference with autocue, reading each line, his audience may find that a little too scripted.

Election fever

The week did go well for the Tories. The conference could have gone one of two ways.

Either it could have descended into bedlam with the party tearing itself apart or it could go the way it did in the end, with a unity of purpose.

Certainly it will have given Gordon Brown something to think about as he studies the latest polling information and considers whether to call a general election.

It was election fever which overshadowed this entire conference, just like Labour's and the Lib Dem's in the preceding weeks. It could be the same for the SNP's conference in Aviemore in a few weeks time.

But for the Scottish contingent who travelled to Blackpool, it was the West Lothian Question which dominated proceedings.

From the platform, the Tory Justice spokesman, Nick Herbert, insisted English MPs would have the "decisive say" over English laws under a future Conservative government.

And in two separate fringe events, the former Scottish Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind put forward his solution to the Question - an English Grand Committee at Westminster which would have the "first say and the last say" over English laws.

Sir Malcolm believes current Tory policy - to ban Scottish MPs from voting on purely English matters in the Commons - would, as Labour ministers argue, create two classes of MPs.

Sir Malcolm's idea was described by Mr Cameron at a Scottish reception in Blackpool as an "elegant solution", giving hope to Conservative MPs that it could find its way into the Tory manifesto if an election is called.

One previous commitment to reinstate the six Scottish army regiments looks like being broken by the party.

When the government merged the six into the one Royal Regiment of Scotland two years ago, amidst furious opposition, the Tories promised to reverse the decision.

Now they've conceded that it's probably too late - though they have promised to guarantee the so-called "golden thread" - the crucial link between the old regiments, now battalions, and their traditional recruiting grounds.

As Tory activists headed for home and the Winter Gardens closed the door for the last time on them, one over-riding question remains in the seaside air.

Will there be, or won't there be, a general election soon?

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